Discovering Humanity through Math with Francis Su

During the winter break, I like to catch up with all the good stuff that I didn’t have the time for during my teaching life.  I finally had the chance to sit down and listen to a podcast that included Francis Su, a professor of math and writer (His book  Mathematics for Human Flourishing is on my bookshelf waiting for me to divulge it).  The podcast is called “How to Be a Better Human“, but featured Francis Su having a conversation with the host about how to discover your humanity through math.

Here are some highlights –

  1. Math is often seen as something “you do to computer a tip”—mechanical.
  2. How do we break the stereotypes for who math is for?
  3. How do we stop seeing math as a test of if we are good at adding things up?
  4. Anything a calculator can do isn’t math.
  5. Everyone is a math person because we’re human.

I especially enjoyed his story about being challenged as a child from a friend to add up the numbers 1 through 100 to get a total.  Eventually the friend showed him that this problem is 50 pairs of numbers that add up to 101 (1 +100, 2 + 99, 3 +98…).  If you have 50 pairs of 101 and multiply 50 by 101, you should get 5050.  It was because of patterns that it can be more easily solved.  There’s a beautiful idea behind that.

Francis also converses about how math education should be about building a hunger for a punchline.  What does this mean?  You know when you tell a joke and everyone is anticipating the punchline.  Why can’t math be like that where students are anticipating/hungering for the end result?  Do students have the patience for this?  Can they persevere?

He later states that people hire you because you have persistence in problem solving or can collaborate with others…not because you can do a problem in 5 seconds.

Francis Su suggests that we need to start opening our eyes to patterns . We don’t have to be an expert to be a math teacher/coach.  Math is being able to think or reason.  He also encourages all of us to continue the “math talk” especially with children.

This was an illuminating discussion.  Usually I’ve been a fault for stereotyping professors of math as strictly math people who can do the far more complex math that some of us weren’t built for.  However I appreciate hearing Dr. Su humanize math for us.   I have always believed that there’s an art in teaching math to the high schoolers and college kids that involve very complex statistics and calculus.

With that said….there’s also an art to teaching math to elementary kids that involve the many difference ways of introducing numbers and how they work.


Until next time,



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